the hell ships
in may 1942 the japanese began transferring british, australian, american and dutch pows by sea from their conquered territories in asia to japan. also aboard these cramped ships were thousands of romushas (asian forced labourers) whose fate was sealed with the pows to go to japan to work in the mines, factories and shipyards. similar to treatment on the construction of the thai burma railway and the bataan death march, prisoners were treated with no regard for their welfare. often crammed into cargo holds with little air, food or water for journeys that would last weeks. many died due to asphyxia, starvation or dysentery. on top of this as the pows lay in the dark, often locked into the belly of these iron ships, they could hear the explosions as allied torpedoes hit other ships in the convoy. these unmarked prisoner transporters were targeted as enemy ships by allied submarines and aircraft.
more than 20,000 allied pows died at sea when the ships carrying them were attacked by allied submarines and aircraft. although allied headquarters often knew of the presence of pows through radio interception and code breaking, the ships were sunk because interdiction of critical strategic materials was more important than the deaths of prisoners-of-war.
these ships became known even during their journeys as ‘hell ships’.
this website contains the testimony of three men who survived.